Writer: Zoe Lewis
Director: Oli Rose
Reviewer: Michael Gray
Alan Bennett, in The Habit of Art, imagines a meeting between ageing geniuses, once friends and collaborators, W H Auden and Benjamin Britten.
Truth, though, is often stranger than fiction, and Zoe Lewis’s fascinating new play looks back to the war yearswhen the poet and the composer shared a frequently squalid house on Middagh Street.Novelist Carson McCullers was another resident, plus of course Britten’s partner, Peter Pears (like Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika, and Auden’s lover, Chester, sadly absent from this company). A later arrival, Gypsy Rose Lee, brought along her domestic staff, which apparently alleviated the squalor a little.
An evocative set on three levels, echoing the faded décor of the auditorium, features, among the clutter, a walnut veneer grand piano and a bathtub, both used to excellent effect.
The piece begins with an unseen orchestra tuning, before young Britten conducts Dawn from The Sea Pictures. As he does so, he fields questions from his tribunal, tried as a Conscientious Objector after his return home in 1942. “Why did you spend two years in the United States?” – “To get away, sir.” Then he’s deep in the bowels of the boat bringing him back, writing to Auden, remembering his time in the house: a first encounter with McCullers, dancing, drinking, playing parlour games. A bohemian enclave where everyone is “free to create, unfettered”. But then it’s Pearl Harbor, the party’s over. A naval officer (David Burnett), a Pinteresque blend of menace and charm, brings an official letter summoning Britten back to the UK. He’s read Crabbe, and the idea for Peter Grimes is born – which is where we came in.
The quirky writing chimes well with the creative mess of Middagh Street; its poetry sometimes subtly suggests the genius at work: “You collect her lost words like jewels and put them in little frames…”.
A superb young cast, directed by Oli Rose, captures beautifully the bizarre encounters and surreal incidents, as well as the deeper emotional passages.
Ruby Bentall is outstanding as Carson, flaky, flighty and frighteningly intense; a nice contrast with the simpler, more straightforward allure of Gypsy (a compelling Sadie Frost). Though his performance is engaging, it is harder to believe in Ryan Sampson’s Britten, wiggling his hips on the staircase, responding to an introduction with “Call me Benji” or “Guilty as charged”. A frequently cheerful live wire with little hint of the repressed, shy man many people still remember. John Hollingworth’s hard-drinking Auden is a mercurial, often melancholic man, sensitively portrayed: poised to jump from the roof, recalling the geniuses lost in the Great War, or joining Britten in a cabaret Funeral Blues to end Act One.
They’re all long gone to the Pantheon of posterity, of course. The brownstone February house is no more, demolished soon after the war to make room for an Expressway. Wilton’s Music Hall – “London’s secret theatre space” – survives though, during the war, there would have been nothing to tempt Britten, or Gypsy, through its shabby doors. It was then what it had been for most of the 20thCentury, a mission hall and soup kitchen.
Runs until17 September 2016 | Image:Marc Brenner